By Luqman Bashir
Before an international coalition routed the Islamic State (ISIS/Daesh) from Syria, the fanatical terrorists had wrongly assumed an aura of invincibility. They carried out daring attacks, intensified their barbarism and did everything possible to court international attention. That quest for international attention was perhaps partly responsible for its adoption of Boko Haram faction as its Franchise in West Africa, which gave rise to the concept of Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP).
It is certainly no coincidence that mindless Boko Haram/ISWAP attacks peaked at the same time that ISIS was being pummeled by the international coalition that eventually broke the group. The upsurge in Boko Haram’s attempt to stage something dramatic has been put down to different factors. One of them is that the terrorists, particularly the ISWAP faction, were attempting to create a new swathe of terrorists for their fleeing Middle East partners to relocate to – the Boko Haram elements are pursuing the same goal but with the intent of presenting themselves to ISIS commanders as the better faction to partner with in West Africa.
A second factor was the elections that held late March and early April. Certain opposition politicians were alleged to have mobilized the terrorists to carry out this attacks in order to undermine the ability of President Muhammadu Buhari to showcase the re-establishment of security as an achievement of his administration, being a core of his campaign promise in 2015. This factor came with the built in advantage that terrorist attacks would have created unstable conditions that allow for vote manipulation. In the aftermath of the election, won by President Buhari, the updated theory became that the opposition continued to support these terrorists to perpetuate the claim that the president does not have the needed grasp to restore the level of security expected by Nigerians.
In the midst of all these, it appears some Boko Haram fighters, mindful of the bleak future that await them following the collapse of ISIS they had looked onto, have deserted the terror group, spread to other parts of the country, especially the northwest, where they now operate under the identity of bandits or kidnappers. Even these groups have been found to be linked to political activities as their crimes are used to hound the present government with claims that it has failed to tack down rising violence.
These trends should ordinarily bolster the morale of Boko Haram terrorists and their sponsors but the excess confidence it bestowed on them. But a few fundamentals had changed before Boko Haram’s latest misadventure. Troops have been trained further and there has been improvement in logistics since the leadership of the military make changes needed to assure of better outings.
This has proven to be the undoing of the attacking group’s fighters that pushed their luck beyond what is reasonable as they attempted to stage an attack on Damaturu, Yobe State capital, in a convoy of at least 14 Hilux pickup vehicles. Had this attack succeeded, Boko Haram would have again published videos of its fighters driving into town with in the convoy and overpowering any military or para-military outpost in the vicinity. But troops of the Nigerian Army unleashed the full extent of the powers of a state on them on the ground while the air support component of the military operation rained hell on them from above.
According to Lieutenant Njoka Irabor, Acting Assistant Director Army Public Relations, Sector 2 Operation Lafiya Dole, the Army acted on intelligence to ambush the terrorists. When the smoke cleared, scores of them have been killed, and many others fled with gunshot injuries. Troops are still in pursuit of fleeing members of the group who as usual are trying to escape into the neighboring Francophone countries in the northeast.
Note must be made of the developments that produced this outcome. The first remarkable thing is the extent to which the Army, under the Chief of Army Staff, Lieutenant General Tukur Buratai has trained the troops coupled with the inspirations and motivation he has given them to defend the country. Of course these are backed up with the federal government support that ensured that the equipment needed to counter the terrorists and put them to flight are beginning to be available to the military.
Another notable development is the timely provision of intelligence that allowed the army to respond promptly. The northeast, and indeed the entire country, is one large swathe of landmass that means it is impossible for the military to have eyes on the ground to cover every squared meter. The civilian population has roles to play in operating an early warning system that allows the military to respond in time to any plan by Boko Haram to attack any community. If this level of providing actionable intelligence is sustained it would be taken for granted that Boko Haram can no longer carryout a successful attack on any village in Nigeria.
The converse of sharing intelligence with the military and other security agencies is the need to professionally handle operational details in manner that they do not fall into the hands of Boko Haram. Late 2018 the Nigerian army acted to address this on two fronts and it was castigated for it. Luckily, the army did not balk. It identified and recalibrated the access that staffers of certain international organizations and NGOs have to military information after they were found to be sharing same with Boko Haram contacts. The Army also asserted its views on persons that breach ethics to publish details of planned military operations in the guise of doing journalistic work. The control of operational information has curbed the extent of information available to the terrorists and it must be kept that way.
A further plus is the improved collaboration between the components of Operation Lafiya Dole that allowed for a robust air support and troops’ ground onslaught simultaneously. This team work should not only be continued but should be expanded to ensure, for instance, that the Nigeria Police Force will in the coming days be turning in some of the terrorists that escaped into communities around Damaturu. General Buratai has the capacity and should take the initiative for growing this collaboration.
A couple of knotty issues however remain. A major one is how to deal with the ineffective partnership between Nigeria and its Francophone neighbours, whose territories remain sanctuaries for Boko Haram terrorists. Some of those that fled the military response in Damaturu escaped into Chad and there is no word of them being apprehended in that country. It is a scenario that has repeated itself time and again.
The second pressing issue is that the tap must be turned off. Pressure must be brought on the international supporters of Boko Haram to cease support to the terrorists. If they continue to funnel cash and weapons to the group it will continue to gather drug addled fighters to use for the kind of suicide mission their attempted incursion into Damaturru has proven to be.
Even with these lingering issues, one might have been shocked when President Buhari reaffirmed to an international audience in Dubai that Boko Haram has been defeated. But knowing that a major information officer of the terrorists lives in Dubai, the President must have intended that the message gets to Boko Haram members and their sponsors that Nigeria, with the like of General Buratai as army chief, is not to be dared without consequences. When an end was declared to ISIS in Syria the world saw deserted streets amid rubbles but in Nigeria, when the army said Boko Haram is done for people saw scores of its fighters’ mangled bodies to justify the assertion. Any further attempts by Boko Haram, ISWAP or any of their incarnations will encounter a similar fate.
Bashir wrote this piece from Damaturu, Yobe State.